LONDON, ENGLAND-   When you visit London, England, the one activity you will want to schedule in very early on is the Changing of the Guard. This is the process involving a new guard exchanging duty with the old one. While the ceremony begins at 11:30 each morning, at busy periods take my advice and get there at least an hour early. That gave us to find a decent spot to stand and take pictures. Thousands of people jammed the area. There was a significant police presence and they continually shouted out warnings for us to be aware of pickpockets.

Immediately following the Changing of the Guard we proceeded to Buckingham Palace and the Royal Day Out tour (https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/visit/the-state-rooms-buckingham-palace/plan-your-visit). This runs annually from late July until late September. A  Royal Day Out ticket offers admission to The Royal Mews, The Queen’s Gallery and The State Rooms at a discounted price. Reserve as much as four and a half hours to complete this tour. The Queen’s Gallery operates a timed-admission system, with entry every 15 minutes throughout the day. The admission time you select will be for The Queen’s Gallery. Your ticket is valid for admission to The Royal Mews and The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace on the same day, at any time during opening hours. Make the purchase online.

Parts of Buckingham Palace are open to the public from late July until late September. Photo by Andrew Holt

Parts of Buckingham Palace are open to the public from late July until late September. Photo by Andrew Holt

 Kings, queens, statesmen and soldiers; poets, priests, heroes and villains – Westminster Abbey  (www.westminster-abbey.org) is a must-see living pageant of British history. Every year it welcomes over one million visitors who want to explore this wonderful 700-year-old building.

The Tower of London (www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon)

is a large open air site covering 18 acres (including the moat). As well as being a unique historical monument, it also houses part of the collection of the Royal Armouries. Right next door to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge Exhibition (www.towerbridge.org.uk). It was recently awarded a Certificate of Excellence for 2014, signifying that it has consistently earned outstanding feedback from TripAdvisor travellers.

Where to dine? The Sofitel St. James is a luxury five-star hotel located at 6 Waterloo Place, near St. James’s Park and Buckingham Palace. We decided to dine at The Balcon (www.thebalconlondon.com), a grand brasserie located within the Sofitel St. James Hotel at 6 Waterloo Place. The Balcon offers breakfast, morning tea and savouries, lunch, French and English afternoon tea, Champagne and cocktails, charcuterie, dinner and late night dining.

Our server Sylvio started us off with a nice bottle of rosé wine from Chile and a delicious selection of fresh baked breads. We ordered a salad to share and then moved to the main course. Two members of our party shared a delicious aged Scottish sirloin steak with Béarnaise sauce and some superb Rooster mashed potatoes. The steak cut like butter. I opted for the wild sea trout fillet, with Jersey Royal potatoes, coriander and garlic sauce. At The Balcon, the house specialties are listed in brackets. Items such as grilled squid and Jersey Royal potato salad or Braised Angus beef short rib to start and the roasted Oxford lamb saddle or the Native lobster, with coquillettes pasta with clams and asparagus as main courses. I am glad we saved room for dessert: warm chocolate mug cake with milk ice cream and vanilla ice cream profiteroles with hot chocolate and praline sauce. If you are headed to London, this spot should be high on your list for an extraordinary dining experience.

When in London, I was always told, one must experience afternoon tea. We chose to do so at the gorgeous Dorchester Hotel (www.dorchestercollection.com). For over 80 years the Dorchester has earned the reputation of serving one of the finest afternoon tea experiences in the country.  Having experienced it, I can now understand why. This is a “class act” from the moment you walk through the front door and are shown to a table. Our charming server spent some time explaining how the afternoon tea service works. We had actually arrived at 5:45 pm. on a weekday, yet being novices we wondered whether this would substitute for a dinner.

High Tea at The Dorchester met and exceeded expectations for elegance and friendly service

High Tea at The Dorchester met and exceeded expectations for elegance and friendly service

The first thing to arrive at the table was some glasses of chilled Laurent-Perrier NV champagne.  We were then given a menu containing six separate pages of tea choices. There was great detail under each one and after much thought the Paris and Dorchester blends won out. The former is a black tea flavored with currants, bergamot and caramel. As for the latter, a homemade speciality is a truly elegant tea, perfect for any time of day and includes a blend of Sri Lankan Ceylon and golden Assam teas and just a slight hint of caramel notes. Our server took the time to pour us cups throughout the evening. I normally have one cup per sitting. On this occasion I had four. It was that tasty and of course went perfectly with the rest of the servings

We thoroughly enjoyed a selection of home-made finger sandwiches: cucumber with cream cheese on caraway seed bread; egg mayonnaise, with shiso cress on white bread; chicken, with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise on basil bread; smoked salmon on granary bread; and a seafood mix. I savored every morsel and expressed deep appreciation when the server asked if we wanted some more. Next was the famous raisin and plain scones from their bakery, served with homemade strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream. Again, this was a culinary treat of giant proportion. I ate each scone slowly in order to completely appreciate this experience. Did we have room for a selection of French pastries? Well, we had to take our picks very carefully as we were feeling a bit full at this point. Nonetheless we were strategic and concluded this meal (and yes it was indeed a meal that lasted almost two hours) with a huge thumbs up. Our server was kind enough to send us back with our leftovers which we enjoyed back at the hotel the following day. Afternoon tea is served five times daily at 1.00pm, 2.00pm, 3.15pm, 4.30pm, 5.30pm and 6.45pm. The Dorchester is situated in the heart of London’s Mayfair on Park Lane.

Mike Cohen’s email address is info@mikecohen.ca. Follow his travels at www.sandboxworld.com/travel and on Twitter @mikecohencsl.

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